By Amy Kaufman Burk
“My son is gay.” “My daughter is gay.”
Over the years, friends have spoken those words.
Some spoke so low I could barely hear. Some cried. These are loving parents, LGBT allies. One couple— shaken and tearful—is same-sex. They turned to me for a safe place to react.
My children and I are straight, but my background is a bit unusual. I was born in 1958, to heterosexual parents who were entirely comfortable with LGBTQ community. There was no Great Divide between homosexuals and heterosexuals. From the cradle, my spectrum of normal included lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and straight.
When we meet our children at birth or adoption, we bring a book’s worth of unconscious parents expectations. Sooner or later, our kids tend to kick those assumptions to the ground. Two super-athletes produce a poet; two physicists sire a basketball player.
I grew up in the film industry, which was a spectacular mismatch. I hated performing, spoke quietly, refused to wear make-up. Worse, my favorite activity was reading. To complicate matters, I had “The Look”— thin and blonde with boobs. Everyone knew I’d become an actress, except I was a committed nerd. I knew the feeling of carrying a core identity that didn’t match expectations.
As moms and dads, different issues derail us. One musician is fine with a gay son, but horrified when he shelves his violin to become a surgeon. A Republican mom brags about her surgeon daughter, but is appalled that she’s a Democrat. An English professor is proud of his Ph.D.-pursuing son, but ashamed when he leaves the program to become a chef.
When our children catch us by surprise, we lose our balance, and we begin a complex journey. As parents, we need to give ourselves a bit of empathy. Our initial reactions may clash against our own values—not because we’re bad people, but because we’re irrevocably human.
The problem is not when adjustments are challenging, even excruciating. The problem is when parents refuse to adjust. Stuck in a mindset, they cause a rupture in their relationship with their child. The problem worsens when they shove the responsibility onto their children. Parents may try to force their son to squelch his identity or their daughter to recreate herself to conform to someone else’s expectations.
We’re all emotionally imperfect. We can be decent to the bone, and still ambush ourselves with “wrong” feelings. However, once we recognize our feelings, we can change. Owning those feelings—even the feelings that are ugly—is a crucial part of human decency, and of parental love. My friends all rebuilt their views of their daughters and sons, to match their children’s true selves.
Forgive and Apologize
Forgiving and apologizing are essential pieces of this process. Sometimes, we need to stretch to forgive ourselves for our wrongness, our parents for their mistakes, and our children for knocking us to our knees. Also, there’s no shame in apologizing to your daughters and sons. In fact, there’s tremendous integrity.
Development is a lifelong process. We help our children grow, and they help us do the same. At some point in the future, a friend will have a daughter or son come out, and they’ll turn to you. Further into the future, they’ll turn to your kids. From this experience now, you’ll know how to create a safe place for them.
So turn to each other, call a friend, talk to a professional. If you’re stuck, don’t give up. Even if you’re a work-in progress letting go of parents expectations you have long had, place your arms around each other’s shoulders—poet, lesbian, surgeon, straight, chef, Republican, scientist, professor, gay, athlete, Democrat, actress, nerd.
Daughter, Father, Son, Mother.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a blogger, novelist and mother of three grown children. Before writing fiction, she was a therapist for 25 years. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, is about the teen experience, and addresses high school bullying.